Europe is paying the price for relying on Russian natural gas

Sep 18 JDN 2459841

For far too long, Europe has relied upon importing cheap natural gas from Russia to supply a large proportion of its energy needs. Now that the war in Ukraine has led to mutual sanctions, they are paying the price—literally, as the price of natural gas has absolutely ballooned. Dutch natural gas futures have soared from about €15 per megawatt-hour in 2020 to over €200 today.

Natural gas prices are rising worldwide, but not nearly as much: Henry Hub natural gas prices (a standard metric for natural gas prices in the US) have risen from under $2 per million BTU in 2020 to nearly $9 today. This substantial divide in prices can only be sustained because transporting natural gas is expensive and requires substantial infrastructure. (1 megawatt-hour is about 3.4 million BTU, and the euro is trading at parity with the dollar (!), so effectively US prices rose from €7 per MWh to €31 per MWh—as opposed to €200.)

As a result, a lot of people in Europe are suddenly finding their utility bills unaffordable. (I’m fortunate that my flat is relatively well-insulated and my income is reasonably high, so I’m not among them; the higher prices will be annoying, but not beyond my means.) What should we do about this?

There are some economists who would say we should do nothing at all: Laissez-faire. Markets are efficient, right? So just let people freeze! Fortunately, Europe is not governed by such people nearly as much as the US is.

But while most economists would agree that we should do something, it’s much harder to get them to agree on exactly what.

Rising prices of natural gas are sort of a good thing, from an environmental perspective; they’ll provide an incentive to reduce carbon emissions. So it’s tempting to say that we should just let the prices rise and then compensate by raising taxes and paying transfers to poor families. But that probably isn’t politically viable; all three parts—letting prices rise, raising taxes, and increasing transfers—are all going to make enemies, and we really must have all three for such a plan to work.

The current approach seems to be based on price controls: Don’t let the prices rise so much. The UK has such a policy in place: Natural gas prices for consumers are capped by regulations. The cap has been increased in response to the crisis (itself an unpopular, but clearly necessary, move), but even so 31 gas companies have already gone under across the UK since the start of 2021. It really seems to be the case that for many gas companies, especially the smaller ones with less economy of scale, it’s simply not possible to continue providing natural gas to homes with input prices so high and output prices capped so low.

Or, we could let prices rise that high for producers, but subsidize consumers so that they don’t feel it; several European countries are already doing this. That at least won’t result in gas companies failing, but it will cost a lot of government funds. Greece in particular is spending over 3% of their GDP on it! (For comparison, the US military budget is about 4% of GDP.) I think this might actually be the best option, though all that spending will mean more government debt or higher taxes.

European governments have also been building up strategic reserves of natural gas, which may help us get through the winter—but it also makes the current price increases even worse.

We could also ration energy use, as we’ve often done during wartime. (Is this wartime? Kind of? Not really? It certainly is starting to feel like Cold War II.) Indeed, the President of the European Commission basically said that this should happen. That, at least, would reap some of the environmental benefits of reduced natural gas consumption. Rationing also feels fair to most people in a way that simply letting market prices rise does not; there is a sense of shared sacrifice. What worries me, however, is that the rations won’t be well-designed enough to account for energy usage that isn’t in a family’s immediate control. If you’re renting a flat that is poorly insulated, you can’t immediately fix that. You can try to pressure the landlord into buying better insulation, but in the meantime you’re the one paying the energy bills—or getting cold when the natural gas ration isn’t enough.

Actually I strongly suspect that most household usage of natural gas is of this kind; people don’t generally heat their homes more than necessary just because gas is cheap. Maybe they can set the thermostat a degree or two lower when gas is expensive, or maybe they use the gas oven less often and the microwave more; but the vast majority of their gas consumption is a function of the climate they live in and the insulation of their home, not their day-to-day choices. So if we’re trying to incentivize more efficient energy usage, that’s a question of long-term investment in construction and retrofitting, not something that sudden price spikes will really help with.

In the long run, what we really need to do is wean ourselves off of natural gas. Currently natural gas provides 33% of energy and nearly 40% of heating in Europe. (US figures are comparable.) Switching to electric heat pumps and powering them with solar and wind power isn’t something we can do overnight—but it is something we surely must do.

I think ultimately what is going to happen is all of the above: Different countries will adopt different policy mixes, all of them will involve difficult compromises, none of them will be particularly well-designed, and we’ll all sort of muddle through as best we can.

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